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John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Laurie Lewis courtesy of English National Opera]
01 Dec 2009

No need to rise for this Hallelujah Chorus

ENO did not exactly ‘import a choir of Heathens’ to encourage the Shaws of this world to ‘hasten’ to its version of ‘Messiah’ ‘if only to witness the delight of the public and the discomfiture of the critics,’ the contribution of ‘Heathens’ in musical terms being limited to representing the populace of an initially grey Britain (or so I assume) but for every critic who was discomfited — most of us — there were hundreds of audience members who loved it, so it’s fairly safe to predict a considerable hit.

G. F. Handel: Messiah

Soprano: Sophie Bevan; Alto: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Tenor: John Mark Ainsley; Bass: Brindley Sherratt; Child: Max Craig; Treble: Harry Bradford. Conductor: Laurence Cummings. Director: Deborah Warner. Set Designer: Tom Pye. Costume Designer: Moritz Junge. Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman. Video Design: Leo Warner, Lysander Ashton and Tom Pye. Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup.

Above: John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Laurie Lewis courtesy of English National Opera]


It was famously said of Mrs Cibber that for her singing of ‘He was despised,’ all her sins should be forgiven, and I can forgive a lot of directorial sins for Catherine Wyn-Rogers’ deeply moving, absolutely committed performance, and for John Mark Ainsley’s characteristic skill in making fluent musical sounds whilst having to perform undignified acts. Sophie Bevan also had a lot to contend with in that ‘Rejoice Greatly’ was taken a little too fast for her, and she had to perform ‘I know that my Redeemer Liveth’ lying flat on a bed, something which no singer ought to be asked to do — those of us familiar with the Glyndebourne ‘Theodora’ will recall how Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels were similarly encumbered at the moment of their deaths, but there it was deeply moving as opposed to annoying, and at least they didn’t have to rise again and don an M&S cardigan. I found it less easy to forgive Brindley Sherratt’s blustery singing — ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ was off key and lacking in grandeur.

And did those trumpets sound for us? Did we, despite being committed Atheists, find ourselves saying ‘Wow, maybe there is something to all this religion stuff after all?’ Well, no — but we sometimes do just that after hearing ‘Messiah’ in the concert hall. Handel himself said that whilst composing the Hallelujah chorus, he felt ‘as if I saw God on his throne, and all his angels about him.’ All I felt here was the same sense of embarrassment I experience at the end of one of those services where everyone has to shake hands. The ENO chorus seemed somewhat subdued overall, and needless to say I Ioathed the drippy dancing.

Does it work? Musically, yes, and you would expect no less from Laurence Cummings’ ever-dynamic command of the orchestra, but the staging seemed too calculated to appeal to the ‘Christmas-addict.’ Of course, it’s a Christmas show, and if it brings in people who don’t know ‘Messiah’ then it will have achieved much, but somehow I had expected more from Deborah Warner: her concept of the kind of grey workaday world of which the poet wrote ‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many’ being transformed by the suffering and death of Christ was a bit too ‘happy-clappy’ for me, and the Christmas-card images seemed trivialized. As for the child who kept running about to no discernible effect, I could have cheerfully shot the little tyke, adorable though he was. Jean Kalman’s lighting, as so often in this house and up the road, illuminated the stage with the most poetic sensibility.

Messiah_012.gifCatherine Wyn-Rogers [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English National Opera]

Should you go? Well of course you should — you’ll hear some genuine Handelian singing and playing, and you’ll experience one of the great masterpieces in a new and occasionally refreshing light — just don’t expect to be as moved as you were by the same director’s ‘St John Passion,’ and be prepared to put up with a few squirm-inducing moments.

Melanie Eskenazi

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